Published: 19:19, September 8, 2023 | Updated: 19:21, September 8, 2023
Why doing what we're bad at can improve our mental health
By Sadie Kaye

Suicide is a decision so impetuous that I don’t think it even qualifies as a decision. It’s an impulse born of chaos that wrecks lives and perpetuates mental illness, spiking statistics, since those left behind are themselves at high risk of developing mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. 

I’ve known eight people who have committed suicide, all of whom I miss and often think about. Once I’ve even been suicidal myself. It was just before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was having my first “mixed episode” (acute mania and depression experienced simultaneously). I have no memories at all of what I was thinking. Just that I wanted it to stop. I was alone in a foreign hotel room. I had 50 sleeping pills in my mouth. But I procrastinated at the crucial point. I spat out the semi-dissolved pills. Eighteen hours later, housekeeping woke me by pinching my nose and slapping me on the face. A few days later, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where I gradually gained an understanding of the triggers and traumas that had brought me to that place.

So, what can those of us who have teetered perilously close to the edge realistically do to prevent ourselves from revisiting that dark and shadowy land of self-delusion? Attending therapy and taking medications is the bare minimum we can do. But they’re a quick fix to plug a hole. Eventually, inevitably, treatment and medications will not produce the same fake sense of calm or fake happy endorphins. What then? More drugs? I knew that the medications I’d been prescribed to help me manage my mood disorder would not be enough to keep me safe for long. They’d lose their “magic beans” power. Therapy would cease to be interesting. And soon I’d be paying HK$3,800 ($485) an hour just for the opportunity to zone out with a psychiatrist in the room. I needed a distraction — to fill my mind with stuff. So I decided to do what I’m bad at, which luckily for me, it turns out, is practically everything.

If we only do what we’re good at, we’re far more likely to equate criticism with the most paralyzing form of personal failure

We are programmed from an early age to focus on what we’re good at. At the same time, we are naturally attracted to doing what we’re good at. If we’re good at it, it’s all we want to do. Praise is a drug, and we crave it like addicts. We start to equate doing what we’re good at with being happy. We believe that if we achieve the pinnacle of success doing what we’re good at, happiness is assured. We make choices based on doing what we’re good at. The more gifted we are, the tougher the choices we have to make. Our lives and minds become streamlined. The more success we experience doing what we’re good at, the less chance we have of escaping doing what we’re good at. We’re reminded of it constantly and told how lucky we are. But what if doing what we’re good at no longer makes us happy, if it ever did? It could even make us unhappy, especially if we only have time for doing what we’re good at. Where is there left to go? How do we continue to grow?

If we only do what we’re good at, our identity becomes synonymous with doing what we’re good at. If we stopped doing what we’re good at, we fear we’d cease to exist. Even if we do defy the odds and reach that illusive pinnacle of success, we risk discovering that contrary to all our previously held beliefs, we could on no account describe ourselves as “the happiest person on Earth”. We start to resent all the time we spent doing what we’re good at. A vacuum opens, a void of emptiness and nothingness. It’s a long way down from the pinnacle; terrifying from any level. We realize with a shudder that negotiating voids is not something that we’re good at.

They say laughter is the best medicine and I have found this to be true. There’s nothing funnier than discovering we truly stink at something and doing it anyway, as my ballet teacher can attest. Of course, there’s always a slight risk we might accidentally get good at doing what we’re bad at. In the unlikely event this happens, try not to despair! Both outcomes are equally positive. It’s easier to love doing what we’re good at for longer if we’re balancing it by focusing with the same passion and intensity on doing what we’re bad at.

If we only do what we’re good at, we risk experiencing every arbitrary rejection and negative comment as a knife wound to our hearts. If we only do what we’re good at, we’re far more likely to equate criticism with the most paralyzing form of personal failure. Shame is not a creative emotion, even if it’s what we’re good at. So I’ll keep on doing what I’m bad at. It’s the easiest way to live.

The author is the founder of support group Bipolar Hong Kong and an ambassador for Mind HK. She has made two documentaries and a series of podcasts about mental health for RTHK Radio 3 and her mental health platform Mental Ideas.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.